These two men aren’t in Italy for the Grand Tour. They’re representing thousands of farmers who are sinking into their native India’s well of rural poverty and they want to tell the rest of the world just what’s going on back home.
Dr Krishan Bir Chaudhary is speaking on behalf of around five million farmers. He is the chairman of Bharat Krishak Samaj, an association representing India’s small farms. Sayed Afsar Jafri is here to represent the India-based Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology founded in 1982 by Dr. Vandana Shiva. Slow Food and the Foundation have been working together for almost two years, collaborating on Presidia projects, the Slow Food Award and the promotion of the foundation’s precious seed bank.
On their way to the UN’s ill-fated World Food Summit in Rome (July 8-10, 2002), Chaudhary and Jafri stopped at Slow Food’s National Congress held in northern Italy, to talk about what the farmers of India want and what they don’t want, which is, in a Chaudhary nutshell, ‘control over their own land and no more genetically modified crops’.
In an interview with Sloweek, they spoke of their fight for a return to biodiversity and traditional Indian farming practices.
Chaudhary’s agenda is to improve the conditions of India’s farmers, 50,000 of whom he represents officially and approximately 85% of whom work tiny holdings (less than two hectares). Citing its failure to lower the price of seeds, implement regulations against GM introductions, lower prices for pesticides, diesel, electricity and farm machinery, he calls the government anti-farmer and is calling for change.
The answer Chaudhary believes, is a return to traditional diets, organic farming and consequently a more varied diet for more people. It’s a preventive approach to the rural poverty, to the endemically low immunity of so many Indians, and consequently to the disease facing his country. ‘By a return to traditional farming, foods and lifestyles, the economy and health of our people will improve,’ he says.
India doesn’t need biotechnology is the message from this delegation. ‘Monsanto cannot feed India,’ Jafri argues. ‘What we need instead is a return to traditional farming practices, a return to biodiversity.’
Bharat Krishak Samaj was founded in 1997 as a farmer’s reaction to rural poverty and the problematic arrival of biotechnology in agricultural India. Jafri illustrates with an example from one region in southern India, where in only one month just under 500 farmers committed suicide. He explains why: ‘The biotech salesmen told the farmers that their profits would rocket with these new seeds, that they would need to spend far less on pesticides and that bumper crops would be a certainty’. So the farmers bought GM seed, signed loans to do so and bought pesticides to spray on the buffer zones. But agriculture, being the messy, unpredictable business that it is, didn’t play nice. The harvest was one of the region’s worst, with monsoons wiping out every crop and the farmers left with nothing but debt.
Chaudhary takes over the narrative, explaining that the shame of debt was too great for many of these farmers: ‘Some killed themselves, some sold their kidneys or their children’s organs just to stay alive. I’m not making this up, these are the results of industrial agriculture’.
Since then, Bharat Krishak Samaj and The Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology have been fighting industrialized agriculture on every front. As Chaudhary says, ‘We’re fighting water privatization, unreasonable regulations, biotech and the government’. Both men and their respective organizations are also working directly with the farmers, holding workshops to explain their rights, how the biotech system works and how they can regain control over their land.
‘Don’t think we’re blindly against science or technology,’ Jafri says, ‘we’re right behind anything that can help the farmers. However, almost every instance where GM crops have been introduced in India, the farmers have suffered terribly’.
It’s the question of seeds that involves Jafri most. He and his colleagues at The Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology preside over an established seed bank and fight for the patchwork farming methods that for so long characterized rural India. Until industrial agriculture and biotechnology that is. As Jafri explains, ‘By its very nature, biotechnology must inherently change agricultural systems’. Farmers from America’s mid-west to India’s deep south have always shared, cleaned and re-sown their own seeds. But with biotechnology, wherever it may establish itself, seeds become patented commodities, farmers sign complicated legal contracts with every purchase of GM seeds and this binds them to an agreement not to re-sow. This means that farmers are obliged to buy new seeds every year. Companies such as Monsanto have gone so far as to set up toll-free phone numbers where people can phone in and report neighbors, friends or family suspected to be re-sowing their seeds. As Chaudhary says, ‘This monopoly system means that the farmers become slaves’.
At this point, Jafri rejoins the conversation. ‘Chaudhary’s right,’ he says. ’Diversity not cash crops is the basis of our rural future. Our farming culture is based on the tradition of sharing seeds, knowledge and benefits. Industrialized, GM agriculture has no room for sharing.’
‘But this diversity is under great threat, from the globalization taking over our culture,’ Jafri continues, ‘Kellogg’s and Nestlé produce nearly all the food sold in our country today. Our national foods don’t exist anymore in parts of India. And because of this our agricultural systems are under threat. Monocultures are eating away at small scale, patchwork agriculture.’
Both men are engaging, passionate speakers. The belief they have in their cause is catching and unflagging. As Jafri concludes, ‘Biodiversity is the foundation of peace in India’. Chaudhary nods and concludes that, ‘Biodiversity means traditional foods, traditional health, satisfying livelihoods and no more urban poverty. We must keep poverty off the streets and, with a healthy agriculture system, this would happen.’
For more information on The Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology visit: http://www.vshiva.net/.
For more coverage of issues concerning biodiversity and agriculture in rural India, please visit the Sloweb archives.
Sophie Herron, an Australian journalist, previously a features writer for Australian Table magazine, is a member of the Slow Food Internet Office editorial team
In the Photo: Agriculture Minister Giovanni Alemanno, Krishan Bir Chaudhary e Cinzia Scaffidi from Slow Food